Thursday, October 21, 2010

When I think it might help . . .

I write letters (or emails). Here's a recent exchange that ought to be self-explanatory. Mr. Jaime is a public relations official with Union Pacific Railroad.

Mr. Jaime,

I found your contact information on a “UP in Texas” web site. I’ll try to make this concise.

In Bloomington (Victoria County), TX, an active (busy) UP line crosses Highway 185, a likewise busy commuting route on early morning and early evening weekdays—a route I commute on. I’d like to describe my experience Tuesday morning 10/13. Unfortunately it wasn’t as rare as I would wish.

Then I’d like to ask a few questions.

I drove into Bloomington from Victoria, and pulled to a stop at the end of a 4-block-long line of traffic stopped for the railroad crossing. I could see the crossing arms down and lights flashing, and made out a dim outline of tank cars proceeding slowly from east to west. Time: 6:21 AM in pre-dawn darkness.

This happens at least once every week or two, so . . . no big deal. I allow an extra 15-20 minutes (from experience) to avoid being late for work.

The train slowed, and at 6:25 it stopped completely, blocking the road.

Now count off 12 minutes. Visualize the line of commuters behind me growing longer and longer. Horns begin to blow. Cars begin to bail out left and right onto side streets seeking an open route around the stopped train. Frustration mounts as no one is sure if the train will move again, much less when.

At 6:37 the railcars begin inching the other direction (from west to east). The train is backing up! Well, at least it was moving. For 6 minutes the tank cars crept across the road. It was now light enough to see them clearly. Eventually, the locomotives also passed. Time was now 6:43 AM.

Trucks and cars began to inch forward in anticipation of the gates going up. Then all stopped. The gates stayed down. Minutes passed. MORE minutes passed!

As you can imagine, cars began driving around the stuck crossing arms. I saw a number of near-miss collisions as other commuters, desperate to get to their jobs, broke the law. Exacerbating the problem were school busses and tank trucks that would not cross the tracks while the lights flashed (as they shouldn’t, but of course, neither should the rest of us!)

When my turn came, I too broke the law and crossed the tracks. Time: 6:51 AM. No train was in sight other than the one that had blocked the road for so long; it was about a half-mile away. In the now-clear daylight I could see no UP employees nearby and wondered if anyone knew the gates were stuck. I called the number for Union Pacific, Bloomington. A man answered, “Union Pacific.” I said (in a not very kind tone, I’ll admit), “Do you guys know your crossing gates are stuck down?”

He replied calmly, “Yeah. It’s been turned in and we’re waiting for responders.” I disconnected before I said something ugly. His tone said clearly to me, “. . .and I don’t care!”

Thirty minutes doesn’t sound long, but it seemed an eternity. Yes, I was late for work.

That tale describes my frustration. Now that I’ve cooled off I’d like to ask a few questions. I debated putting these in a letter to the editor of the Victoria paper, but decided the more mature course would be to ask you.

First, to satisfy my curiosity (since it happens with some regularity), what is going on when 60 railcars of a train cross an intersection, the train stops, and nothing moves for over 10 minutes? Does it take that long to throw a switch so the train can back up and add or remove cars? Is there a crew change, and if so, does it take that long? With miles of switchyard just east of Bloomington, is it really necessary to block this intersection while switching cars?

I admit, I’m ignorant of the workings of your business. Likely valid reasons exist for these practices. Unfortunately, most members of the general commuting public are also ignorant and, like me, assume in their ignorance that the railroad doesn’t care if traffic and lives are disrupted, and simply blocks intersections needlessly because it can.

Next question: Was that employee all alone when I called? I’ve seen railroad employees in the past (at Bloomington) who would hold open a crossing gate arm when no train was present or would be moving for a while, to allow highway traffic to proceed across the tracks. If Mr. “we’re waiting for responders” had another employee or two around, he could have done wonders for UP’s public image by having one or two of those employees visibly help traffic move.

I understand the inherent danger of proximity to moving objects weighing a quarter of a million pounds each, and thus the need to be very careful and deliberate. Still, in my ignorance of railroad practices, policies and procedures, it just doesn’t seem like what I witnessed yesterday should happen.

Please help me to understand.

John Earle

(For my next post, I'll publish his response. And then the rest of the correspondence.)

1 comment:

Jan said...

Their jobs must be quite boring until they can liven them up this way.